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    Tuesday, January 10, 2006


    Daniel Gross bemoans the whining of the so-called It-Sucks-To-Be-Me-Generation, which is, of course, mine:

    Oh, it's so hard to be young these days! Just crack open Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young, by Anya Kamenetz, or Strapped: Why America's 20-and-30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead, by Tamara Draut, and you're plunged into a world of darkness and sorrow. ...

    Now, today's twentysomething authors are clearly onto something. College is more expensive today in real terms. There's been a shift in student aid—more loans and fewer grants. The Baby Boomers, closer to retirement, are sucking up more dollars in benefits. There's more income volatility and job insecurity than there used to be. So, why are these books—Generation Debt in particular—annoying?

    It's not that the authors misdiagnose ills that affect our society. It's just that they lack the perspective to add any great insight. Writing in the New York Times this weekend, economics reporter David Leonhardt called Strapped, "a grim tale of one-sided generational warfare." Draut argues that "with the possible exception of having a larger array of entertainment and other goods to purchase, members of Generation X appear to be worse off by every measure" than prior generations. Huh? How about the Internet and Starbucks coffee and Lipitor and not having to worry so much about AIDS or crime or Mutual Assured Destruction or getting drafted into the Army and getting sent to Vietnam?

    Oh boy. I can't help but agree that having the Internet and Starbucks (don't know about Lipitor) makes life better. But don't try to tell me that these things don't make life more expensive too. Having the Internet also means that, if one is college-educated (and sometimes even if one isn't), one is expected to be able to access it all the damn time. Forget trying to have any kind of desk job without a home computer; and, for a lot of folks, without a laptop. Your boss expects you to check your email at 10 o'clock at night and on weekends. I can't remember the last Saturday and Sunday in a row that my boss didn't email me with some question. It's the same with a cell phone. Once upon a time, people could get away with having one phone for a house full of people; now, each and every person needs to be accessible and up goes the cost of living and working.

    As for Starbucks, this is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses issue; while our parents might have felt they needed a new refrigerator, I personally feel a certain discomfort in my office as the only person drinking deli coffee- and forget about the feeling when I brought it from home! So, it's stupid to spend all this money you don't have for a latte in a cute cup with a quote on it, but it's no stupider than a lot of the stuff the boomers spent their money on at our age (I won't even mention what comes to mind).

    Also, it seems our dear Daniel has forgotten that AIDS is on the upswing! My generation is the generation whose first inklings of sex were usually about how it could kill you. Sure, HIV is less deadly these days. I wonder how often the boomers had to hear, "Well, at least you don't have to worry about TB!" Mutual Assured Destruction (by which, I assume, he means the Cold War) is just different now; is the Soviet Union really so much scarier than the dangled-by-Bush threat of the Arab world bombing us and crashing into our skyscrapers? And, finally, the draft? Please, please don't let's complain about how my generation isn't getting drafted. We aren't getting drafted because the boomers were dodgers like we'd never seen before, so the very option of a draft became less useful. And our not being drafted simply means we don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to protesting the war in Iraq. And, frankly, sometimes I wish the boomers hadn't given my generation so much if it meant we would have to hear about it for the rest of our lives.

    It's tough coming out of Ivy League schools to New York and making your way in the world. The notion that you can be—and have to be—the author of your own destiny is both terrifying and exhilarating. And for those without marketable skills, who lack social and intellectual capital, the odds are indeed stacked against them. But someone like Kamenetz, who graduated from Yale in 2002, doesn't have much to kvetch about. In the press materials accompanying the book, she notes that just after she finished the first draft, her boyfriend "proposed to me on a tiny, idyllic island off the coast of Sweden." She continues: "As I write this, boxes of china and flatware, engagement gifts, sit in our living room waiting to go into storage because they just won't fit in our insanely narrow galley kitchen. We spent a whole afternoon exchanging the inevitable silver candlesticks and crystal vases, heavy artifacts of an iconic married life that still seems to have nothing to do with ours." The inevitable silver candlesticks? Too much flatware to fit in the kitchen? We should all have such problems.

    And does her fiance have one of those crap temporary jobs all the drones in her generation are destined to hold forever? Not really. He's a software engineer at Google.

    Now, Gross is right: it's not that bad to be Kamenetz or her partner. But that's why she can have a book deal and write about how bad it is for the rest of us. I can hate her for going to Yale, but I'm not going to hate her for writing about the difficulties experienced by twenty-somethings who didn't go Ivy, etc.

    But, after hating on him hardcore for awhile, I have to concede a few points:

    1. My generation of upper-middle-class college grads does seem to assume that we shouldn't have to see any reduction in our quality of life after leaving the nest. At the same time, we expect to have all this savings like our parents have. Part of that is their influence on us: start an IRA! 401K! etc. They wish they'd done it so they put it on us. But the other part is that we were told that COLLEGE would save us. If we graduated from COLLEGE, we'd get the "good jobs". And we didn't realize that the "good jobs" are the ones that give us a place from which to move up, rather than our high-flying expectation of doing-whatever-we-want-for-great-money-right-out-the-college-chute. Few of us were trained that we should actually do what would give us security rather than what we love. Also, the dearth of manufacturing and other such jobs means very few opportunities outside of office-world to get a pension and benefits.

    2. In some ways, jobs are different now. A lot of consulting, writing, tech and other jobs are freelance, telecommute, or part-time these days. This is great for many people. I love having the schedule I have and am happier doing this without any chance for benefits or 401K or whatever than when I had a full-time position, which would have offered me great benefits if I'd stayed long enough. I didn't stay long enough, though. I knew I didn't have to. A lot of urban young people I know love not knowing what they're going to do next and being able to make their schedules and their own rules. You can't have that and a 401K too.

    3. The current economic climate is affecting everyone.

    For more: Wrestling with Truth, and Kamenetz herself responds.


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